Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Futurological Gotcha and the Desperation of the "Geo-Engineers"

It is a commonplace for techno-utopian futurologists to declare "inevitable" whatever ill-conceived science-fictional wet-dream they happen to be putting their faith in and/or trying to get undue attention by peddling at the moment, whether it be reproductive cloning, or designer babies, or engineered superbugs, or nuclear power plant archipelagos, or "zootropics"- "cosmeceuticals"-"male-enhancement herbals," or cheap programmable desktop nano-genies-in-a-bottle, or whatever it may be, all by claiming that if we try to restrain the emergence of whatever sooper-mirage they're going on about through regulation or bans it will only arise inevitably elsewhere anyway through the irresistible force of human ingenuity, innovation, competition, avarice, or some such thing.

Of course this neglects the fact that it is rarely the straightjacket of Big Bad Big Brother Gu'ment that has restrained the emergence into reality of fervent futurological daydreams like artificial intelligence, crypto-anarchy, dinners in a pill, multi-century lifespans, paperless offices, robot slaves granting lives of leisure to the masses, energy too cheap to meter, colonies on the Moon, or personal jetpacks, but that these were all deeply confused, incoherent, idiotic notions as matters of fact. Among my Futurological Brickbats, XXIV points out, to the point, "It is always magical thinking to declare an outcome need only be profitable for it to be possible."

This idea that whatever some futurologist is pining for at the moment is sure to come about, because were it to come about it would be profitable, and whatever is profitable will attract a market that will circumvent any effort to restrain it by law is a variation of what James Boyle had called "The Libertarian Gotcha," namely (as paraphrased by Lawrence Lessig in Code), that "no government could survive without the Internet's riches, yet no government could control the life that went on there." Of course, as even John Perry Barlow surely has grasped by now, one may fancy they live and work in "Cyberspace, the Land of Mind," but one's fat ass still lives and works in fact on planet earth where police enforcing laws have guns and the stomach must occasionally be consulted if one is not to perish -- and the riches of the Internet turned out be, like the riches of futurological McLuhan's "global village" before them, at best ambivalent.

Although Boyle called his fallacy "The Libertarian Gotcha," I can't help but note that it emerged very specifically in the context of not just libertopian but digital-utopian claims, that is to say it should be an open question whether what I might call "The Futurological Gotcha" is an instance of "The Libertarian Gotcha," or vice versa, whether the fallacious energies it enthusiastically unleashes are more essentially delusively liber-topian or techno-utopian. Perhaps there is an irresistible allure drawing the fancies of libertopians and the fancies of technotopians into Ayn Raelian discursive alliances, come what may. But what matters here is just to point out that these are indeed fallacious arguments, mobilizing hazy, hyperbolic assumptions of perfect technologies operating in perfect markets, which is always magical thinking in the first place, but in which magical thinking more generally (I will get what I want just because I want it so very desperately) is always very much in evidence as well.

If I may digress, it also seems worth noting in this connection that George Bush famously declared (actually more than once) in precisely this vein that there was no point in asking the rich to pay more taxes, since they would always just evade them anyway -- and yet progressive taxation has indeed been implemented here and elsewhere with undeniable material effects in funding general welfare, easing wealth concentration, among many other beneficial outcomes. To be blunt, one doesn't stop criminalizing murder just because people will always keep killing one another, one criminalizes murder because it is wrong, as one decries stupidity because it is wrong. "Trendspotting" the likelihood of more murders or more stupidity to come is hardly to the point if what is wanted from analysis is something actually, you know, helpful.

It is in this context that we should read Jamais Cascio's recent report on a talk he gave in a conference about "geo-engineering" (so-called) at the National Academy of Sciences. He writes of the general meeting
[W]hile there was plenty of debate, everyone in the room agreed on three big ideas:
• Climate disruption is happening fast, and we are rapidly losing any chance we might have to avert its worst effects through carbon reductions alone;

• Climate engineering needs a great deal more research (even making geoengineering research 1% of overall climate change research would be a vast increase), to identify both best options and techniques to avoid;

• Because "desperate people do desperate things" (a line from my talk), there's a very real chance that someone will attempt to use climate engineering.

I don't think the first idea that all the participants agreed on lends any support to "geo-engineering" advocacy per se -- indeed I don't understand why it's a "big idea" at all (anthropogenic climate change is denied by few but fulminating American Movement Republicans by now, after all, and most environmentalists advocate changes in agriculture policy and any number of other things in addition to proposals for carbon reductions, these are commonplaces that scarcely set one on the road to "geo-engineering" wish-fulfillment fantasizing), except I do know that self-promotional futurologists are quite fond of declaring every hairball of common wisdom they cough up a Big Idea, so perhaps that is what is afoot here.

And since there is very little agreement as to what "geo-engineering" actually includes or excludes as a category in the first place I don't even think the second idea is particularly worrisome: Since the aggregate effects of conventional regulation requiring smokestack soot-filters or the public subsidization of widespread tree-planting could both be described as "geo-engineering" in most fuzzy definitions of the term and neither of these proposals demand in my view the derangement of environmental politics from legible democratically accountable forms onto the elite-authoritarian military-industrial mega-scale engineering boondoggles that attract the ire in my critiques of "geo-engineering," it seems to me these moneys might be put to good use, especially the fewer the number of futurologists around to blow cash on science fiction misconstrued as science.

The third (Big!) idea is, of course, a variation of The Futurological Gotcha. It may seem compelling -- and apparently did to the conferees themselves -- as fallacies often do seem compelling, but that doesn't make it otherwise than a fallacy nonetheless. Cascio dwells on this third idea the most in his report and so will I -- it is after all his contribution to the larger debate at hand, and also the most quintessentially futurological of the ideas.

Of it, he writes:
I added the "desperate people" line to my talk because, as much as we are all concerned about the ecological side-effects and global political repercussions of climate engineering, this is ultimately about people trying to save themselves from disaster; we can't forget that human lives are at stake. The line seemed to strike a nerve, and several of the subsequent presenters repeated it. One told me that it crystallized a core issue about geoengineering.

I may actually agree with Cascio that this particular conceit does indeed crystallize "geo-engineering" discourse. To say why, let me point out that an equally commonplace phrase as "desperate people do desperate things," and often treated as roughly synonymous with it, is the phrase "desperate people do stupid things."

Stupid things are still stupid however desperate the people who do them, and it should not be the business of intellectuals to "predict" that people will behave stupidly, but to recommend non-stupid things they might do instead whether they are desperate or not.

Cascio tut-tuts about "ecological side effects and global political repercussions" in his comment only to dispense with these on the way to an advocacy of desperate "geo-engineering." Whatever the limitations of the "geo-engineering" concept as a way to actually coherently describe a set of techniques or projects connected according to their essential properties and distinguished from others, or as a way to assess the actual costs, risks, and benefits to an actual diversity of stakeholders in actual geophysical and historical situations, I have pointed out again and again that the category of "geo-engineering" does indeed function coherently from a rhetorical and political vantage:

That is to say, "geo-engineering" discourse is usually a direct address to incumbent-elite industrial-extractive corporate-military interests of a form which assures them that efforts to clean up the mess they made of the planet in becoming rich and powerful can make them richer and more powerful still if they manage it right.

Also, to speak of "geo-engineering" is almost always also to speak first of the "failure" of democratic-legible environmental politics of education, agitation, organization, regulation, legislation. This concession of the final failure of conventional political processes almost never does not take place in a "geo-engineering" argument, indeed usually frames such arguments, and hence I take it to be essential to the discourse, and indeed this is the gesture with which Cascio dispenses at the outset with any critics who might highlight "ecological side-effects" or "political repercussions" the better to bulldoze ahead with predictions about the irresistible force of "desperate people."

That Cascio couches this observation sanctimoniously in terms of not forgetting "human lives are at stake" is fairly appalling the moment we snap out of the futurological daydream and grasp that the reason actual critics might point to "ecological side-effects" and "political repercussions" is because these also translate, quite literally, to "human lives [that] are at stake."

Human lives would be the "collateral damage" of "ecological side-effects" being pooh-poohed by "geo-engineers" with their Big Plans and their impatience to Get This Show on the Road, human lives are likewise lost wherever corners are cut by corporate-military contractors, when stakeholder accountability is not ensured (but of course that would never happen, eh).

Pious genuflections to a need for "openness" would need to be accompanied by persistent reminders (all the more necessary in proportion to the prospect of profits involved) of just why accountability is necessary since the lack of it is literally lethal, as well as technical elaborations -- technical specifications as rich as the CGI renderings of mega-engineering fantasies that are always the real star of such shows where it's all boys with their toys all the time -- of just how this accountability is to be assured at the level of actual procedures, actual tracking of expenditures, actual chains of command, else "openness" just means the usual "openness, heh heh" operating in developmental theaters like these.

I must say, starting off one's case, as Cascio rather seems to do, by cavalierly declaring "political repercussions" to be dispensable niceties scarcely earns a futurologist confidence in their back-patting assurances later on of sensitivity to the need for "openness" (not the most robust word for accountability and oversight on offer, as it happens, and a notoriously vapid futurological buzzword by now), for anybody who has any historical awareness of development politics in the real world.

It isn't the risk to human lives posed by climate catastrophe that is in question here, it is the fact that desperate people doing and endorsing stupid things isn't exactly the best way to save lives, especially when desperation is exacerbated and used by the richest and most powerful interests in the world (many of whom acquired their station precisely through getting us into the mess at hand) to offer up slick rationales for continued profit-taking without real democratic oversight, regulation, accountability or scientific deliberation about risks and costs to everyday people they have never much cared about in the first place.

It seems to me likely that "geo-engineering" discourse itself, in conjuring the spectacle of such hasty hubristic corporate-militarist boondoggles as the only hope we have left, itself contributes materially to the desperation it then congenially "predicts" and then raises to the status of an irresistible force. To the extent that desperation can be mobilized and canalized into useful idiocy more generally by those minorities who would exploit the panic for continued profit-taking, I cannot say that I find this particular line particularly surprising to see.

Cascio devotes much of his article to the happy report that the "geo-engineering" topic has gone from something highly marginal to something taken very seriously indeed.

I cannot say that I personally think so incoherent a notion as "geo-engineering" deserves to be taken seriously but it is hardly the first futurological incoherence to manage that feat by any stretch of the imagination.

To the extent that the substance of "geo-engineering" is telling the rich and powerful something the very much want to hear (namely, that the climate catastrophe they brought about for personal profit won't be the end of their world, but instead creates conditions under which they might indeed consolidate their position and gain a greater share still of the world's wealth), I must say it doesn't exactly take a futurologist to prophesy that this is one line in egregious hype that has a real future.


Dale Carrico said...

Eric just rolled his eyes and jokingly asked if desperate people are also more likely to murder do futurological "trend-spotters" recommend we get out ahead of the curve and start "innovating" and slaughtering people indiscriminately? Talk about bleeding edge futurism!

Michael Anissimov said...

Paperless offices and personal jetpacks don't exist?

Dale Carrico said...

Also, Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father.